Monday, January 23, 2017

Louisa Catherine Adams, The Fifth First Lady of the United States-Part II

by Lauren Gilbert

Louisa Catherine Johnson, 1794

Part I can be found HERE.

Louisa Johnson’s family was known to the Adams family, a family on a level with nobility in the fledgling United States of America. John Quincy’s parents, John and Abigail, were in London and Paris between 1784 and 1788, when John was the first ambassador to Great Britain. Although not yet consul, Joshua and his wife would have been part of the Anglo-American society with whom John and Abigail would at least have been acquainted. Previously, John and John Quincy were known to have met up with the Johnson family while they were sojourning in Nantes in France. There is no indication that John Quincy and Louisa had any prior acquaintance themselves (she was much younger).  They met when John Quincy was ordered from Holland to London to help with an official act. Due to travel delays, John Quincy did not arrive in time; business was concluded without him. He was kicking his heels, waiting for orders to return to his duties as resident minister of Holland, when he found his way to dinner at the Johnsons’ house.  There he resumed his acquaintance with Mr. and Mrs. Johnson and enjoyed the society of their family and friends. He was considered a handsome young man, and a portrait of him can be seen HERE.  

Before we go further, it is important to understand a bit about both of these individuals. Louisa had strong ideas about marriage and a woman’s role. She viewed her parents’ relationship as idyllic, reminiscing about how her father had adored her mother and catered to her. At the same time, her father also espoused a very traditional role for women, in the home and subordinate to her husband.  (This was still a time, when a couple married, the two became one and the man was the one.) Louisa’s own reading and thinking led her to want more. She wanted a voice in her life and decisions affecting her, and she wanted the kind of marriage that she thought her parents had. Louisa was also rather insecure about many things. She considered her older sister Nancy to be the belle and beauty of the family. Quite slender, almost unfashionably so, with large dark eyes, she did not consider herself particularly attractive or talented, although accounts indicate otherwise. Most of all, she felt compelled to hide her intelligence and her desires, as she did not believe men would be attracted to those attributes. The traditional duty of a woman of her time and status was to marry as well as possible to please her parents. In many respects, she was spoiled; in others, she was stifled.

John Quincy, as the son of John and Abigail Adams, was raised to be an achiever. His parents planned his education and career and made the decisions at all levels. Both parents pushed him hard to excel in his studies. His career path was to study law and follow in his father’s footsteps. The trouble was he was not particularly interested in the law, nor did he particularly want to follow his father’s path into public service. His father’s work and the war caused frequent separations, and both parents wrote frequently about the importance of his studies, his duty to his family and his country, and setting forth the high expectations they held for him. He became insecure, feeling that he could never fully meet their expectations, and frustrated because he did not trust his own preferences and desires. He loved and respected his parents but also felt resentment for their constant pressure and control over his life. (He seems to have had especially mixed emotions for his mother; she was a very strong woman who made decisions and had a strong partnership with her husband. He loved and admired her, but also seemed to have resented her influence and strength.) As an adult, he was torn between what he felt he ought to do in terms of continuing his studies and pursuing his work versus the things he wanted to do. Leisure was a particularly difficult issue for him. He enjoyed parties and society and felt guilty for indulging in leisure activities. He felt he could never live up to his parents’ expectations for him and did not always trust his own abilities. He had been in love with and wanted to marry a girl named Mary Frazier and gave her up at the insistence of his parents, a sore point for the rest of his life.

So John Quincy joined the Johnson family for dinner and became a regular in their society. He did not appear to pay particular attention to any of the girls but, in time, he mentioned her by name in his diary expressing his appreciation of her singing. He was present socially on a frequent basis, including his attendance at Louisa’s older sister Nancy’s birthday ball in November 1795. Many people (including Louisa, apparently) believed he was courting Nancy (a logical assumption given she was the elder and considered the beauty). Catherine Johnson was pleased by the prospect, although there were indications that Joshua was not, given his desire for his daughters to marry Americans from the south.   A ball for Louisa’s upcoming 21st birthday was held January 27, 1796, and John Quincy made his interest in Louisa known. This caused a serious upset in the family, given that Nancy considered him to be courting her as did many other people, and no one had any inkling it was Louisa to whom he was attracted.  Nancy was angry and humiliated, and she took it out on Louisa. Then, having made his interest known, John Quincy did not appear to be disposed to do anything more about it. While Catherine was in favour of the marriage, her father seemed resigned (financial problems made husbands for his daughters very attractive). However, having declared his intentions, John Quincy did not propose marriage.  He was due to return to his duties in Holland and, despite spending more time with the Johnsons than ever, seemed almost to hope to get away.  Finally in April, Catherine Johnson demanded a meeting with him and insisted on knowing his intentions.  John Quincy, despite his apparent reluctance, and Louisa became engaged, and Joshua promised her dowry of 5000 pounds.  However, John Quincy insisted on returning to Holland (he was ordered to return in May) without being married, and that he would not marry Louisa until his appointment was concluded and he was able to resume his law practice and was able to support her; in other words, they were engaged but had no definite plans to marry. At this time, long engagements were not the norm. This situation left Louisa in an uncertain state, insecure about his affection and facing the possibility of estrangement in time. John Quincy returned to Holland, unmarried, while Louisa resigned herself to wait.

John Quincy and Louisa began a correspondence. Both of them were short tempered, insecure and uncertain of the future. They meant to be agreeable to each other. He told her his plans and expectations; she tried to mould herself accordingly. They tried to be romantic, but were unable to find a real connection. Then, John Quincy was appointed minister to Portugal. To Louisa, this seemed an opportunity for them to marry; he could stop in England on the way to Lisbon, they could marry, he could take her with him. This was not an acceptable plan to John Quincy. The concern about supporting her was the same.  However, she also felt his letters implied that he did not truly feel she would be a suitable wife for him. In the meanwhile, Joshua was facing extreme financial difficulty and planned to take his family back to America that summer, and John and Abigail Adams were writing letters to John Quincy deploring the marriage. They counselled delay, to wait til his prospects were more settled. Abigail felt that Louisa was too European and would not fit in as an American, even though naturalized. That did not faze John Quincy, so the tactics changed; John and Abigail expressed concern that time in a European court would corrupt her, turning her into a monarchist, so they discouraged his taking Louisa with him to Lisbon. Louisa asked if they could at least see each other, even offering to come to Holland with her parents. Unfortunately, John Quincy responded by accusing her of planning to be left behind in Holland, basically trapping him. Frequent correspondents, letters flew back and forth, neither waiting for a response before firing off another. Harsh words were exchanged, and each gave the other the opportunity to break it off. However, making it clear that his first obligation would always be to his country, John Quincy came to England July 12, 1797.

John Quincy had made it clear that Louisa would never be his first priority, and it showed when he did not visit her until the day after his arrival. To his surprise, when he asked Louisa to set the wedding date, she selected a date two weeks away. She felt insecure and wanted to get it done. (Her father was also in a hurry, as his finances required that the family return to the United States as soon as possible; marrying Louisa off would mean one less person to transport and feed.) John Adams was, by now, President of the United States, and he threw a further monkey wrench into their  plans by changing his appointment from Portugal to Prussia, a more prestigious position. John Quincy deplored nepotism, but took the appointment anyway, not least because it was troublesome to him. (He seemed to feel a particular virtue in annoyance and struggle.) He had already had his possessions shipped to Lisbon. Louisa and John Quincy were finally married on July 26, and they celebrated for several weeks, concluding in a ball given by Louisa’s father on August 25. John Quincy and Louisa moved to the Adelphi Hotel to stay til their departure for Berlin in October. Her family joined them for dinner on September 8, which turned out to be a farewell, as Joshua was taking the family to the US immediately (earlier than planned), the result of a financial disaster about which Louisa knew little or nothing. They left the hotel and went straight to the ship. Then Louisa discovered that, in addition to leaving her without warning, he had not paid her dowry to John Quincy, a violation of their marriage agreement. This was a serious blow, as she felt that John Quincy and other people would assume she knew that her father would  not pay. John Quincy had always been concerned about money, and her father’s default and the subsequent scandal put her in a embarrassing and difficult position, especially when creditors appeared at their hotel. The timing was especially bad, as John Quincy had left his savings with his brother Charles to invest, and Charles had lost it. John Quincy received a letter from a colleague of Mr. Johnson's, implying that John Quincy had knowledge of Joshua’s failure, and gave the letter with his reply to Louisa to read.  The whole situation left her shattered and humiliated.


Part III will continue with their married life. Their marriage would last fifty-four years.

Sources include:

(In addition to those cited in Part I)
Roberts, Cokie.  LADIES OF LIBERTY.  New York: William Morrow (an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers), 2008.

Withey, Lynne.  DEAREST FRIEND A Life of Abigail Adams.   New York: Touchstone (trademark of Simon and Schuster), 1981.

Caroli, Betty Boyd.  THE FIRST LADIES From Martha Washington to Michelle Obama, 4th edition.  New York: Madison Park Presss, 2009.

Image of Louisa: Wikimedia Commons HERE.

Source for image of John Quincy Adams: NewEnglandHistoricalSociety.com, "John Quincy Complains About Kissing."  No author or post date provided.  HERE

About the author: Lauren Gilbert is the author of HEYERWOOD: A Novel, released in 2011.  A second novel A RATIONAL ATTACHMENT is in process.  She lives in Florida with her husband, with some roses and gardenia, herbs and pineapples.  Please visit her website at HERE.


1 comment:

  1. I'm really enjoying this post Lauren, John & Abigail are my number 1 POTUS & First Lady, I've never bothered much about John Quincy and am now sorry I neglected him.
    Now to read part III.

    ReplyDelete